Paying Attention

Paying Attention

To riff a bit more on last week’s post:

I’m ye olde cliche of a secularist: spiritual but not religious. My Sunday morning sermon is usually listening to the podcast On Being. An episode that underscores my point about the value of everyday experiences in making art is an interview conducted with the Northern Irish poet, Michael Longley, which is well worth a listen:

At one point, Longley talks about visiting the same family holiday spot over and over and over again (poo-pooing the world travelers who are constantly seeking fresh experiences in a new place and, in the process, missing the point). He delights in how, over the decades now that he’s traveled there, no two visits are the same. The canopy of an oak tree looks golden in a certain afternoon light; a stream pool has deepened as a result of rainfall. These observations aren’t exclusive to nature. I’ve lived in cities for most of my adult life and have been humbled by those moments of actually noticing. I say humbling because oftentimes it seems it takes me months, sometimes years to pay attention to a thing that has been there all that time, waiting for me to notice it.

I think this has something to do with being in touch with a creative impulse. When you’re open and paying attention, when you try to live a bit like a receptacle, things present themselves to you with seeming effortlessness. But you need to be on a frequency more sensitive to the one on which we generally live. The pace needs to slow a bit for you to notice; you need to feel comfortable stopping and doing nothing from time to time. As a culture and country that prides itself on achievement and gain, this is sometimes excruciatingly difficult for us to do.

Last year, I got sick and my body forced me to slow down. For a while I felt miserable, but eventually, the slowing down guided me to this new frequency. I met people, observed and read things, had small experiences that all seemed profoundly related. I did not have to search and scrap; things just arrived to me.

I realized this was the pre-writing stage of a new project.

In the past, I’ve found this a difficult stage. I’m impatience; I like to get on with things. I like the feeling of word counts and page numbers, the satisfaction of accumulation (at least where my creative work is concerned). But I resisted the impulse to write too soon and instead took notes, collected information and photos and thoughts. It was deeply gratifying and has made the project richer as a result. I’ve collected these scraps; now I’m ready to begin to make meaning.


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